Steve Jobs: Good or Bad Rebel?

Fifty years from now, I’m sure Steve Jobs will still be seen as one of the great business leaders of the 20th century.* But I bet the jury will still be out as to whether he was a good rebel or a bad rebel. What I’m referring to is my friend Lois Kelly’s excellent chart detailing the characteristics of good and bad rebels in organizations. What do we mean by rebels, or heretics as I often describe myself?  We’re talking about those people in organizations who have strong views as to how the organization can improve, how it needs to change. They are brave (or foolhardy) enough to stand against the prevailing doctrine of the organization and seriously argue for another way.

Whenever Lois or I have spoken recently about the need for organizations, in these times of demanding change, to make better use of the rebels within their midst, we get asked a very good question. How can you tell a good rebel from a bad one? Lois’s list is a good start at answering that question, but the curious case of Steve Jobs shows, I would argue, how in some cases you as a leader may never be quite sure what kind of heretic you’re dealing with.

Now to be fair to rebels/heretics everywhere, Steve Jobs doesn’t really qualify as a rebel in the way we mean it. Apparently from the very beginning of his corporate/entrepreneurial career, he was at the top of the heap, more or less calling the shots. In fact, it’s quite clear, once you begin to think about entrepreneurs, that being rebellious and restless is one of their essential drivers. One way to think about rebels is as the individuals in your organization who are one or two personality quirks away from being full-fledged entrepreneurs. As a leader, you should consider yourself lucky to have such an asset, if indeed you have a good one.

Which brings us back to Steve Jobs. Here is Lois’s list.

Stories about Steve Jobs suggest that he spent his life hopping back and forth between the pairs. (Confess I haven’t read the biography yet.)

  • Steve Jobs was a complainer….and a creator.
  • He was angry….and passionate.
  • He was me-focused….and mission-focused

Well, you get the point.

For me, the aspect of Steve Jobs character that is most difficult to excuse or explain away, and is implicit in several of the bad rebel characteristics, was his rudeness and meanness to other people. (He pointed fingers at others.) There are many stories to this effect, and my favorite (because it rings so true) is the account that Apple employees worried about being in the same elevator with Jobs for fear they would no longer have a job when the elevator doors opened. Jobs was indeed lucky that he was always the leader of organizations, not their employee, because we all know that such behavior in mere employees is rarely tolerated, and for good reasons.  In fact, it is hard to think of a more poisonous workplace situation than when a weak boss allows a strong but pathological employee to run roughshod over colleagues because she delivers on the mission.

Of course Steve Jobs’ personality did cost him the leadership of Apple during the 1980s, an event that he cited as one of the most important learning experiences of his life. But the occasional account that he mellowed over the past ten years or so just don’t ring true to me. The telling and convincing details just aren’t there. I suspect that Jobs, who reportedly ran through 60 nurses in the hospital before he found 3 he could tolerate, remained a difficult and demanding person all his life. But in the end, almost everyone, including some of the folks he abused, believed he was worth it.

The Rebel as Paradox, then, will pose the greatest challenge to the leader who wants to tap into rebel energy. Intensive coaching might help, but we all know spending disproportionate time and energy on one individual will often unbalance an entire team and/or mission. In the end, the Paradoxical Rebel may just have to move on, willingly or not, and your role as a manager/facilitator may only extend to providing the lesson that he might potentially learn from. His future might lie as an entrepreneur. Or the experience of failure may result in the necessary reflection to adjust behaviors. It is always more effective to reflect on experience than on advice. But in the end, it will always be the responsibility of the Paradoxical Rebel to demonstrate that his ideas are worth the price the organization must pay.

*Addendum:  As I was drafting this blog, I did some research on other great business leaders Steve Jobs might compare to. When you google “Great American Business Leaders” the first hit you get is Harvard Business School’s handy database on American business leaders of the 20th Century. It’s instructive just to scan the lengthy listings, scrolling past names such as Elizabeth Arden, Michael Bloomberg, Henry Ford, Edwin Land–the Polaroid genius whom Steve Jobs greatly admired, Edwin Luce, H. Ross Perot, David Sarnoff, and hundreds of others.

It is a pretty cool database, but you know it could stand some serious rethinking in terms of its categorization scheme. For each leader, several facts are provided: age, company, education. But the two categories that frankly struck me as odd were Race and work background of Father, i.e. skilled worker, small merchant, whatever. Why any institution would use the increasingly discredited “race” category as a discriminator of anything of value is beyond me. (I know Federal Law still mandates its use in many instances (and people increasingly are subverting it by picking other categories) but this database would not be subject to that law.) And the inclusion of the Father’s occupation but not the mother’s is just plain weird and totally inappropriate for today’s society. I do think Harvard Business School could do a little better here.

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One response to “Steve Jobs: Good or Bad Rebel?

  1. Pingback: A Good Renegade is a Bad Renegade | Maney|Digital

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